A Good Priest and a Boy
I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but from what I have learned, that’s not unusual. I must have been 10 or 11, in the fourth or fifth grade at a small parochial school. I was an altar boy, and it was while serving at 6:30 Mass before school one morning that I first met him. He was small and thin. I would like to say he had blue eyes, but in truth I can’t remember. Father Murray had been a missionary and had spent much of his career in India. He was approaching 70, and prior to his retirement he was spending a year or two in our decidedly less exotic suburban New Jersey town.
Father Murray quickly befriended me, and his soft Irish brogue melted my defenses. He told me stories about India and the work he did there among incredibly poor people. Once he was in a place with so many flies that he had to wave them off each forkful of food before he could put it in his mouth. Father Murray took me into his confidence and made me feel special by the attention he gave to me. We spent more time together, and he came to my house for dinner a few times. My parents left us alone as he taught me how to play cribbage in the den at the back of our house. On one occasion I had something terrible on my mindof course I can’t remember what it was nowand I asked if I could go to confession. He got up and closed the door to the room we were in.
I unburdened my 10- or 11-year-old soul, he gave me absolution, and we went back to playing cribbage. I recall how carefully he would lay his cards down: Fifteen, two points. I am not sure if he was disappointed that what had seemed so earthshattering to me was rather mundane to him, but he ministered to me with kindness and compassion, as if I were a penitential prisoner on death row.
That, until more recently, was the end of the story. Now, of course, I am aware that all sorts of terrible things could have happened to me. Father Murray was a person I trusted and admired. We spent time together, often alone. My parents were as trusting of him as I was. If he had been a different sort of person, a predator, I might have been an easy mark. No, the terrible things didn’t happen to me. In fact, in a way, the terrible things happened to him, and to the many good priests who dedicate their lives, as Father Murray did, in service to God and to us.
I am not being an apologist for the abuse or the coverups and the malign ignorance that was once manifested. The abusers must be driven out of the priesthood (whether they are notorious or not) and prosecuted for their crimes. Nor do I wish to minimize the pain so many people have felt and continue to feel for what was so wrongly done to them. But after the victims of abuse themselves, it is often the good priests who have been hurt the most. The crimes of their fellow priests have tarnished their reputations, and caused unjust suspicion to be cast upon them. Some of them even feel they can’t wear their collars in public.
One of our parish priests has questioned his very vocation. I am sure he is not alone. Younger priests’ trust, especially in their superiors, has been violated. The non-Catholic public is wondering what really motivates men to become priests. Within the church itself, I believe that most lay members do not comprehend the impact the sexual abuse scandal has had on the lives of these priests.
These conscientious but troubled priests, along with Catholic lay people, would do well to remember and acknowledge the good priests they have knownpriests like Father Murray, who took time for me and let me win at cribbage. It was only later, after my own years of difficult times in which my faith was tested, that I recognized the impact he had on me. Father Murray was an example of faithful Christian belief and selfless Christian service. His life, held up against my own, is a regular reminder of how far I need to go.
I visited Father Murray 12 or 13 years later in Ireland after he retired. At the time, I had not been to church in more than four years, but seeing him started a process that would make me rethink my decision. Father Murray lived with two of his sisters by the sea. He was in his 80’s, and he was as surprised to see me so tall as I was to see him looking so frail. He still had a smile that would make Buddha jealous. Only after he left us did I realize that this cribbage-playing befriender of altar boys was also a very holy man.